If you started swing dancing recently, it’s very likely that you’ve heard at least one of your dance teachers gushing about some guy named Frankie.
“Frankie this”, “Frankie that”, and “Frankie used to say…”. So who is this Frankie guy anyway?
Frankie “Musclehead” Manning was one of the top Lindy Hop dancers to come out of Harlem, NYC where the dance originated in the 1920s-40s. In the 1980s, a couple of groups of swing dance revivalists independently sought him out, and helped bring Frankie – who had abandoned dancing after WWII – out of retirement to share his dance knowledge and teach dance workshops around the world. Among these groups were Steven Mitchell & Erin Stevens from California, but also the Rhythm Hotshots from Sweden, of which Catrine Ljunggren, one of my own dance partners was a part. Frankie would have turned 97 this past Thursday, May 26, but for his passing in 2009. Dancers around the world mourned the loss of this great dancer and amazingly charismatic yet humble person who had inspired them for many years.
Among his many dance accomplishments, Frankie is credited for creating and performing the first Lindy Hop airstep. In a dance-off contest against then reigning champion “Shorty” George Snowden, Frankie flipped his dance partner over his back, stunning the crowd and stealing the title of top dancer at the Savoy Ballroom. Frankie is also responsible for the style of swing out where the leader dances low to the ground and kicks and stretches out horizontally – he wanted it to look like he was flying when he danced.
Frankie danced, choreographed and directed Whitey’s Lindy Hopping Maniacs, one of several groups of Herbert White’s Lindy Hop performance troupes from the Savoy, who as a whole were known as Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. At a dance workshop one year, I asked Frankie why the name “Maniacs” for his particular team. He replied plainly that “they were the wildest of the bunch.” No doubt, you can see what he was talking about in numerous Hollywood film clips in which the Maniacs performed. The most notable of these clips is from the 1941 film Hellzapoppin:
In this clip, Frankie demonstrates his amazing athleticism along with partner Ann Johnson. They are the last couple to solo before the team performs as a group. You also get to see another of Frankie’s contributions to Lindy Hop: the first ensemble Lindy Hop routines, in which the dancers danced in formation. Prior to that, Lindy Hop performances had been limited to individual couples dancing, that is without formations.
In modern times, Frankie traveled the world teaching Lindy Hop dance workshops and introducing new generations to this joyful dance. He had a reserved seat at the Herrang Dance Camp in Sweden, which is considered a sort of Mecca among modern swing dancers. He loved to dance and teach the “Shim Sham Shimmy” and would always pantomime the bridge in the song with his son, Chazz Young. He would warm up his classes by dancing the Electric Slide. His favorite song was “Shiny Stockings” by Count Basie, and he also always insisted that when dancing the “Suzy Q” step, you kept your front foot flat on the ground and back foot heel up – otherwise you were doing the wrong step.
I was fortunate to meet Frankie up close and personal several times in Herrang and while he was visiting San Francisco for the yearly Frankie Manning Workshop that he taught each February. One of my favorite memories however was one year when I was volunteering at the Savoy Ballroom 80th Anniversary Celebration in NYC. Following the event, I stayed a few more days in NYC and even got to drop-in for one of his regular weekly group dance classes. After class, Frankie invited us students to all to hop into his classic town car and he proceeded to give us a lift to Swing 46 to go social dancing! I understand that even at 90+ years of age, this was common weekly practice!
I’ve had many other wonderful encounters with Frankie, too much to write about in this post alone. Aside from his dance accomplishments, what I must really say last here is that what struck people about Frankie the most was his amazing spirit: friendly, smiling, laughing, welcoming. He inspired the best in us.
If you consider yourself a serious Lindy Hopper, you must learn who Frankie is. Look him up on Wikipedia, YouTube, and buy his book “Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop.”
P.S. I’ll update this post soon with links to more information about this legendary swing dancer.